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Gruff Rhys of The Super Furry Animal on his new one-man show

By The Citizen  |  Posted: September 03, 2014

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Gruff Rhys ambles onto stage wearing a fluffy wolf-head hat and a slightly overwhelmed expression.

He holds up a number of placards onto which he's scrawled random words, and then finally sits down to begin his one-man show - American Interior, Rhys' talk-cum-gig dedicated to 18th century explorer John Evans.

He had a residency at a London theatre earlier this year, and afterwards performed it at various festivals around the country. The shaky introduction is followed by 90 minutes of detailed explanation about Evans' trek from North Wales across the Americas, between 1792 and 1799, interspersed with slides - both humorous and informative - and glorious songs that further tell the story.

American Interior is also an album, Rhys' fourth solo collection, and a book - which is subtitled The quixotic journey of John Evans, his search for a lost tribe and how, fuelled by fantasy and (possibly) booze, he accidentally annexed a third of North America - and a film.

Like Rhys, John Evans grew up in North Wales. Intrigued by persistent tales of a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans, he voyaged to North America to find them, first landing in Baltimore, and at various points over the next seven years, walked 1,800 miles, was imprisoned on suspicion of being a spy and was paid by the Spanish to map the Missouri River and find its exit to the Pacific.

In North Wales, Evans' story is often told to children.

"I grew up with the tale," says Rhys. "I'm actually descended from John Evans' uncle, from his mother's brother, so my dad always used to tell me this amazing story. He's famous in his own village of Waunfawr. I've got a few friends from there and that's where my gran came from. Half the village is probably related to John Evans."

He says his brother studied Evans more closely, although what would become a full-blown obsession for Rhys began a little more casually, when he first started touring America with his band Super Furry Animals in the late Nineties, and found he often ended up close to significant sites in Evans' story.

"I always wanted to go but never had the time while we were on tour, so eventually, I went to my booking agent, showed him a map and asked him to book a tour along the route taken by John Evans between 1792 and 1799. I wanted to see it all and follow his journey completely."

That was almost three years ago now, and the results can be seen during Rhys' slideshow. There are numerous photos of him and the John Evans' puppet that accompanied him on the journey, staring out onto the Great Plains, or sitting in a diner.

What took Evans seven years on foot, took Rhys only five weeks by train, but he got a great taste for the man's life while he was away.

"I'm not a historian," he says, "so I'm coming at the story as a storyteller and songwriter. I'm looking at the tragi-comic aspect of the story. I think he was a really serious guy and lived an incredibly hard life, but he's only ever been written about in the context of other people; as a footnote in the Prince Madoc [a 12th century Welsh prince who set sail to America some 300 years before Columbus] story, or as a footnote in the Lewis and Clark [pioneering American explorers Captain Meriwether Lewis and close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark] stories," he says.

"There is room for a major academic study on John Evans, but I'm not that guy. My tragi-comic take can be a gateway for someone else more serious."

In truth, Rhys' "tragi-comic" take might be the only John Evans story one need hear. He uses every literary device in the book to tell it, and on stage has the presence and timing of a skilled stand-up. The show has a ramshackle feel which you're never sure is accidental or deliberate, but that's all part of its beautiful charm. And that's before you get to the songs, which are some of the best Rhys has written.

What started off as something of a passing interest has now "completely taken over" Rhys' life, with the book, film and album all made within a two-year period. "It's a bit excessive," he says, with typical understatement. "And now I'm going on tour telling the story again."

This isn't the first time Rhys has been drawn to a fantastical story like this. In 2008, he teamed up with producer Boom Bip to form Neon Neon and released Stainless Style, a concept album which told the story of John DeLorean and his dream of designing the infamous sports car seen in Back To The Future. They followed it up with Praxis Makes Perfect, this time examining the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Italy's foremost post-war communist thinker, publisher and the man who popularised the iconic photograph of Che Guevara seen on millions of student bedroom walls.

Such esoteric interests and love of a good story can be traced back to Super Furry Animals' early albums too, which variously took in tales of Albert Einstein, the rules of ice hockey and Valentine Strasser, who, in 1992, seized power in Sierra Leone just days after his 25th birthday.

More than anything, Rhys seems endlessly fascinated with the world, and as a result, he's made many endlessly entertaining records. Super Furry Animals, the band he formed in 1993, are often referred to as the country's most underrated, a feeling that's grown all the more since their "hibernation" began in 2010. Rhys on his own is perhaps one of our most underrated songwriters, and certainly one of the most inventive, although his unique talent can sometimes be hidden under the dense concepts of his recent albums.

"I stumbled onto these stories," he says. "I'm never really aware that's what's happening, or that it's becoming a pattern. I've done three biographical albums in a row now, so now I suppose I'm thinking of ways that it won't happen again or I'll just be repeating myself.

"It has all been an education for me," he adds.

His next piece of work will be the soundtrack for Set Fire To The Sun, a biopic of Dylan Thomas' first literary visit to America, with the man who organised the trip, John Brinnin, played by Elijah Wood.

"I've done the songs already, and it was something different again. Just concentrating on the music was a new experience for me. And I love Dylan Thomas. He's sort of unavoidable in Wales, so it's hard not to. I love Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog, which I think captures being at a hedonistic age really well."

After, he says he's going to take some time off from reading about historical figures, and is looking forward to touring American Interior - not just because it'll be his first proper tour in three years, but because it'll give him chance to rest his brain.

"Apart from the shows, it's a vacuous process, mechanical and untaxing," he says. "I've had a couple of years being very busy, and being back at home in Cardiff with the family not going anywhere. Now it's time to do something else."

EXTRA TIME - GRUFF RHYS

:: Gruffydd Maredudd Bowen Rhys was born on July 18, 1970 in Haverfordwest, Wales, but grew up in the small North Wales town of Bethesda.

:: After playing in various local bands, he and Dafydd Ieuan, Cian Ciaran, Huw Bunford and Guto Pryce formed Super Furry Animals in 1993.

:: They released their first album Fuzzy Logic in 1996, and have released eight more since, most recently Dark Days/Light Years in 2009. Since then, the band have been on hiatus and involved in other projects.

:: Rhys released his first solo EP in 2005, Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, Welsh for The Stuttering Generation. It's also a pun on its similarity to the Welsh word 'atalgenhedlu', which means contraception.

:: He lives in Cardiff and in 2006, he and partner Catryn Ramasut founded ie ie Productions, to make TV programmes and films.

:: Gruff Rhys begins his American Interior tour on September 4, full dates below. The accompanying album, film and book are available now

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